#ThrowbackThursday: Vintage commercials and advertisements (part 2)

By Elissa Blattman, NWHM Intern

In last week’s Throwback Thursday post, we showed you a bunch of sexist advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s that chastise women for not properly fulfilling their prescribed gender roles. This week, we would like to highlight some ads from the same period that show women’s changing roles and/or flip gender roles around altogether.

Check out this commercial for Ajax Liquid Cleanser where a husband offers to clean the kitchen floor for his wife. The wife comes into the kitchen, tells her husband that he is using the wrong product, and rolls her eyes when he questions what she is saying. He eventually agrees with her and uses Ajax to clean the floor. Unlike most of its contemporaries, this commercial is actually quite similar to many of today’s ads that portray men as incompetent around the house (see, for example, the Swiffer “Man Up, Clean Up” ads, such as this one that “teaches” men how to clean a kitchen floor).

Sam, the handyman in this Beautiflor commercial, says he used to clean Miss Jones’ floors because “she’s a busy woman, mighty busy.” Miss Jones no longer needs Sam to clean her floors, though, because Beautiflor cleans and waxes at the same time, which means she has time to do it herself. Since she is still busy, though, Sam continues to help Miss Jones by watching her children.

While some ad men were cleaning floors and watching children, some ad girls were getting down and dirty with the boys. The young girl in this Fab detergent commercial is seen rolling down a hill, wrestling with her brothers, and getting her clothes just as messy as theirs. Her mom says, “I thought little girls were supposed to be dainty, but Jenny’s just as bad as the boys.” The Fab girl is active and enjoys roughhousing with her brothers, which makes her different from the suggested more delicate nature of her mother. This commercial came out in 1968, four years before Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 opened many doors for female athletes, some of whom surely acted more like Jenny and less like her mother when they were younger.

In addition to ads that show females and males in different roles, there were also ads for products that made women’s lives easier. A recurring series of ads for Armstrong floor cleaner, another product that waxed and cleaned floors in one step, also invoked sports as an interest for women. The slogan used by Armstrong in these advertisements is, “FOR WOMEN WITH MORE EXCITING THINGS TO DO THAN SCRUB FLOORS.” This particular ad shows a woman with a bow and arrows, suggesting her more exciting thing to do is practicing archery. Other Armstrong ads show a woman in fencing gear, on a surfboard, and in a jockey outfit.

This General Electric Heat ‘n Serve Baby Dish is portrayed as “a real work saver for mom” and “absolutely indispensable for every mother” because it makes feeding babies and cleaning up easier. The two ads below are also for products that make domestic tasks less demanding for women. The one on the left claims the Brown Soilfree oven range is a “wifesaver,” stating, “the chore of cleaning ovens claims the good humor of countless homemakers…not to mention damage to hands, knees, backs, and busy schedules!…Let the wifesaving Soilfree oven save time and energy for better things.” The ad on the right is for a Dixie Cup Dispenser, which claims, “less work for you,” the mother, because “your sink doesn’t fill up with glasses…no broken glass, either.” With the Dixie Cup Dispenser, “kids help themselves…instead of bothering you for every drink.”

While it is still assumed in all the ads above that women were the ones responsible for caring for their children and home, the products featured draw on one of the major changes taking place in the lives of American women during the 1950s and 1960s leading up to the second wave of the Women’s Movement. Women were increasingly living more public lives during this time and were becoming more and more visible outside of the house. More women were pursuing interests, working, becoming involved in women’s clubs, and taking a larger part in day-to-day society. They no longer had time to spend all day cooking and cleaning, and modern appliances and products helped take a great deal of that burden off their shoulders (see also our Foodie Friday post about how the TV dinner cut back on the time busy women had to spend in the kitchen preparing dinner for their families). The freedom to independently come and go as she pleased was also important to women who chose this busier schedule, as can be seen in this TWA ad that asks, “Who says, ‘IT’S A MAN’S WORLD’?” “Not the woman who files TWA,” it claims. “Her horizons are broader…she’s found new freedom and opportunity to see and enjoy…Yes, women of all ages are going more places in the world today because of world-proved TWA.”

Like the TWA ad and unlike the Goodyear and Volkswagen commercials from last week that draw on the stereotype of women as bad drivers to sell husbands products to protect their wives from crashing or protect their wallets from big payouts when their wives do crash, this commercial from Ford is directed toward women and introduces them to the freedom they will get out of living in a “two Ford [family].” Ford, the commercial explains, made their line of cars so affordable that families could own two. The woman in the commercial says before her family got two cars, living in the suburbs kept her “practically a prisoner in [her] own home” because her husband would take their one car to work everyday, making it difficult for her to go anywhere. Having two Fords, though, is “a whole new way of life,” as the woman is “free to go anywhere, do anything, see anybody anytime [she] want[s] to.” She says, “It’s only good common sense. Why be stuck with one expensive car when you can enjoy all the fun and freedom of two fine Fords?”

Do these commercials and images change your mind at all about how women were portrayed in vintage advertising? Do you remember seeing any of them on television and/or in magazines during the 50s and 60s? If so, do you recall what you thought of seeing women portrayed like this, as opposed to how they were seen in most of the ads of the day?

Join in on the conversation!  Post comments below, on Facebook, or Tweet us @womenshistory using the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday.

Print ad sources: Armstrong, Brown Soilfree, Dixie Cups (image courtesy AdClassix.com), TWA

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